Robots will take over the world. This is usually the phrase associated with automation and how it is impacting the workforce. But the notion of artificial intelligence taking over is not just in a science fiction movie. Losing control and function of a machine, and having HAL repeatedly inform you that he can’t do what you ask is a scary thought, not just for luddites. After all, the human is the one who actually designed the machine. Wasn’t the machine supposed to make the job easier in the first place?
We’re Asking the Wrong Question
But what really is the endgame for automating jobs? A key question to ask is not whether automation is or is not in our future (it clearly is here, and has contributed significantly to creating more efficient work processes). So, the question becomes not if automation is needed in the workforce, but instead, what are the most vulnerable jobs or activities? In the near future, not that many jobs will be automated in their entirety. But certain activities done by people are very likely to be redefined and automated, making certain tasks easier (e.g. tellers are still very much active; but ATMs have become a convenience allowing tellers to focus on other tasks).
The automation people think of today might be a bit different than what has been previously devised and implemented. From manufacturing solutions that have sped up production, to less world-changing inventions such as faster food ordering, automation in the workforce has evolved. One could consider the time when horses provided the needed power (horsepower, anyone?) and were replaced with steam; this was a type of automation. Kiosks installed on restaurant tables still employ a waitress, but speed up paying time.
Post WWII, airplanes began surpassing trains as the preferred method of travel. Planes themselves now have complex auto pilot systems. These signs or omens of progress (depending on your position) bring forth a notion of both job creation and job decimation. The design and programming of robots or automation has to be created by someone. The complicated wiring and controls must be structured for constant operation. These instrument panels likely have to withstand harsher treatment, or be developed without the need for constant repair than if human-operated.
Those Left Behind
But technology does leave some behind. Automation seems to be everywhere. Holding onto a job or continuing an inefficient process just because does neither party any good. Adaptation is key in the workforce; and it is key in the technological advances that may or may not be more effective. Of course, we only seem to know their effectiveness after the fact. But that is human nature. It cannot be helped.
If Automation Is Inevitable, What’s the Holdup?
The hesitance that many people have with automation in the workforce is that it just seems to keep coming. But that is consistent with history. It ebbs and flows. A prime example of this surge and subside is a look at the barriers that prevent overreaching automation implementation. Efficiency has its limits, after all.
- Technical issues that arise during operation
- Financial hurdles to investment in new automated devices
- Human resistance to change
These barriers sound like brand new predictions for 2017, right? They are actually from 1982. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) presented a report titled, Automation in the Workplace: Barriers, Impact on the Work Force, and the Federal Role. Note how the obstacles to implementation are always the same: computer errors, money and people.
It is inevitable that some workers will be left behind. Improvements in technology always create some jobs and at the same time cut some away. Business processes that incorporate automation can achieve high quality output, at a much higher initial investment. History has proved the workforce adapts quite well to change, because this change has been seen before. If it means that computers will be our end, that is still to be decided. What is true though, is that the current labor force will need to adapt even more with skill development. There is no safe answer at this time as to whether the current automation trend is stronger than others. Sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t answer that.